Greasy Pole: Catching a Crabb?
Although he was out of step with his own declared standards of order – which included training ex-soldiers as teachers to impose stricter discipline in the schools – the former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove in March 2014 gave voice to his opinion that David Cameron’s inner cabinet included such a concentration of Old Etonians as to be ‘ridiculous’ and comparable to that of Robert Gascoyne – Cecil, Lord Salisbury, whose cabinet at the beginning of the twentieth century ‘… was known as Hotel Cecil. ‘The phrase “Bob’s your uncle” came about and all the rest of it. It is preposterous’. It was shortly after this outburst that Gove was moved from Education to become the Tory Chief Whip and then, after the 2010 election, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice so that his attendance at certain traditional events requires him to appear in robes that an outsider might consider to be as preposterous as those of any ceremonial Old Etonian.
But among Gove’s colleagues on the Tory benches there is Stephen Crabb the MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire and Secretary of State for Wales, whose background and ready smile clearly place him outside the ranks of the blue-blooded but preposterous. For Crabb was brought up by a single mother – his father’s violence in the family led to the parents splitting up – on a council estate in Pembrokeshire; as a student he spent his holidays working on building sites. He was first elected in 2005, winning the seat from Labour in what had been a ‘Tory-free zone’ and went on to increase his majority in 2010 and 2015. He was promoted to Secretary of State after his predecessor David Jones was sacked – a result of Jones’ persistently combustible contacts with the Welsh Administration. There is another Tory MP in Pembrokeshire but he is Simon Hart who, in contrast to Crabb, went to public school and agricultural college and was for ten years Master of the local Hunt (the less respectful locals are inclined to lump the two MPs together as Crap and Fart). Another way in which Crabb distinguishes himself is that he has a beard; he is in fact the first Conservative Cabinet minister to be so adorned since the Fourth Earl of Onslow, an Old Etonian who in 1903 was President of the Board of Agriculture. But Onslow’s beard, with his handlebar moustache, was bushy and abundant while Crabb’s is cropped and trained; during Prime Minister’s Questions he sits on the Front Bench inviting one of the cameras to swing towards him and he smiles – or rather the beard smiles. Its message is that he is contented with his record so far and expects it to see him into an exultant future.
In the beginning Crabb was a youth worker in London, going on to apply what that experience taught him as a marketing consultant at the London Chamber of Commerce. His first taste of the Commons was as a parliamentary intern – which then, as now, was a demanding but unpaid job – for an organisation called Christian Action Research and Education or CARE. There are now some 20 MPs using this service, supplied by CARE free of charge for work such as research and organisation. Crabb has one on his staff but there is no mention of it in his current biography website. CARE describes itself as a ‘Mainstream Christian charity bringing Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy’ but others prefer a term more in tune with its association with the ‘mission’ of the American pressure group Focus on the Family of ‘defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide’. These ‘truths’ involve a theory that homosexuality is a disorder which all-right thinking people would strive to ‘cure’; opposition to equal rights, including marriage, for same sex couples, to the processes of assisted dying and to the repeal of the infamous Section 28. There are five MPs who have broken their contact with CARE, one of them describing its policies as ‘deeply offensive’.
As part of his avowed intention to alleviate poverty, even as a staunchly ambitious MP, Crabb became a trustee of the Pembrokeshire Action To Combat Hardship. One of the starkest and most debilitating symptoms of hardship right now is evident in the growing dependence on food banks. Foremost of the charities in this field – the Trussell Trust – states the problem clearly and without doubt: between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2015 they distributed three days’ food on 1,084,604 occasions, feeding some half a million people, which represented a year-on-year increase of 19 per cent. Of the people they helped some 44 per cent were in emergency through delays in, or cessation of, their benefit payments. Crabb’s response to this crisis of need was to vote to reduce the benefits of social tenants subjected to the infamous bedroom tax. And to vote against raising welfare benefits in line with price rises. These votes were a part of the government policy to inflict even worse damage on the people already suffering extreme poverty. At the same time they improved Crabb’s chances of working his way up the Greasy Pole.
And then there is the matter of his expenses. He claimed over £8,000 on a second home to refurbish a flat which he then sold at a considerable profit; then he ‘flipped’ a claim for a house which he was buying in Pembrokeshire and a room in another flat was classed as his second home. His justification of all this was that he had not ‘…claimed for things like plasma TVs, even though the rules allow it’ and then that an official in the fees office had encouraged him in the manipulation: ‘Steve I’m looking at your allowances and you’ve spent hardly anything… you’d get more for your allowances if you switched’. In all during four years he claimed £67,633 in second home expenses. These details must have been of some interest to anyone struggling to survive on what are called welfare ‘benefits’ and food bank ‘charity’. And to anyone interested in the flexibility of what Crabb presents as his ‘Christian honesty’. To be recalled along with the ‘honesty’ of the others like Michael Gove, Simon Hart, David Jones . . .